The Sugar Conspiracy

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

The sugar conspiracy seems so brazen in retrospect:

Robert Lustig is a paediatric endocrinologist at the University of California who specialises in the treatment of childhood obesity. A 90-minute talk he gave in 2009, titled Sugar: The Bitter Truth, has now been viewed more than six million times on YouTube. In it, Lustig argues forcefully that fructose, a form of sugar ubiquitous in modern diets, is a “poison” culpable for America’s obesity epidemic.

A year or so before the video was posted, Lustig gave a similar talk to a conference of biochemists in Adelaide, Australia. Afterwards, a scientist in the audience approached him. Surely, the man said, you’ve read Yudkin. Lustig shook his head. John Yudkin, said the scientist, was a British professor of nutrition who had sounded the alarm on sugar back in 1972, in a book called Pure, White, and Deadly.

“If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive,” wrote Yudkin, “that material would promptly be banned.” The book did well, but Yudkin paid a high price for it. Prominent nutritionists combined with the food industry to destroy his reputation, and his career never recovered. He died, in 1995, a disappointed, largely forgotten man.


When Yudkin was conducting his research into the effects of sugar, in the 1960s, a new nutritional orthodoxy was in the process of asserting itself. Its central tenet was that a healthy diet is a low-fat diet. Yudkin led a diminishing band of dissenters who believed that sugar, not fat, was the more likely cause of maladies such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. But by the time he wrote his book, the commanding heights of the field had been seized by proponents of the fat hypothesis. Yudkin found himself fighting a rearguard action, and he was defeated.

Not just defeated, in fact, but buried. When Lustig returned to California, he searched for Pure, White and Deadly in bookstores and online, to no avail. Eventually, he tracked down a copy after submitting a request to his university library. On reading Yudkin’s introduction, he felt a shock of recognition.

“Holy crap,” Lustig thought. “This guy got there 35 years before me.”


Look at a graph of postwar obesity rates and it becomes clear that something changed after 1980. In the US, the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980s, it takes off like an aeroplane. Just 12% of Americans were obese in 1950, 15% in 1980, 35% by 2000. In the UK, the line is flat for decades until the mid-1980s, at which point it also turns towards the sky. Only 6% of Britons were obese in 1980. In the next 20 years that figure more than trebled. Today, two thirds of Britons are either obese or overweight, making this the fattest country in the EU. Type 2 diabetes, closely related to obesity, has risen in tandem in both countries.

At best, we can conclude that the official guidelines did not achieve their objective; at worst, they led to a decades-long health catastrophe.


We tend to think of heretics as contrarians, individuals with a compulsion to flout conventional wisdom. But sometimes a heretic is simply a mainstream thinker who stays facing the same way while everyone around him turns 180 degrees. When, in 1957, John Yudkin first floated his hypothesis that sugar was a hazard to public health, it was taken seriously, as was its proponent. By the time Yudkin retired, 14 years later, both theory and author had been marginalised and derided. Only now is Yudkin’s work being returned, posthumously, to the scientific mainstream.

Read the whole thing.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    The rule of thumb should be: no fast carbohydrates, vegetable-based oils, refined sugar, period.

    And be sure to also read the personal health section on the Market-Ticker, especially this comment.

    Tens of millions of Americans take statin drugs (to lower cholesterol levels) even though the lipid hypothesis (that dietary fat causes heart disease) turned out to be pure BS. The “so-called medical establishment is willfully and intentionally ignoring contrary evidence on the lipid hypothesis,” to quote Karl Denninger:

    Cholesterol Does Not Cause Heart Attacks

    It’s no longer even a “nutrient of concern”, cholesterol. Apparently “One expert noted that the widespread cholesterol warning, like much dietary advice, was “never supported by science”.

    Oopsie! No harm, no foul, right?

    Yet the public still thinks that eggs are bad, while eating Froot Loops for breakfast; it’s hysterical!

  2. Tim says:

    Early 1980′s. Hmmm. What occurred then? Computers and video games would be my guess.

  3. Felix says:

    And “diet” foods?

  4. Bob Sykes says:

    I suppose you mean “fructose” wherever the text reads “sugar.” In common use, “sugar” is sucrose, or cane sugar, the main sugar found naturally in foods. Anything ending in “ose” is a some sort of sugar.

  5. Isegoria says:

    Sucrose is fructose plus glucose. (High-fructose corn syrup is also fructose plus glucose, physically mixed.)

  6. Anomaly UK says:

    Sucrose is fructose “plus” glucose in the sense that water is hydrogen “plus” oxygen.

    The “refined sugars are evil” theory seems to me very plausible, but I would be quite surprised if there was anything especially bad about monosaccharides. Fructose is what you get in fruit, after all. If HFCS has any significance, it would just be that it made sugar even cheaper and more plentiful than before.

  7. Isegoria says:

    The mixture of fructose and glucose does seem more fattening than sucrose.

  8. Isegoria says:

    Also, fructose and glucose seems to be isocaloric but not isometabolic. And if two molecules with the same chemical formula can be so different, perhaps there is no such thing as a macronutrient.

    (Also, dietary fructose causes liver damage in monkeys.)

  9. Grasspunk says:

    I was about to laugh at the monkey paper when I noted in the comments that Eric Crampton and Steve Johnson went there before me. Why not blame the flour? Or the polyunsaturated fat in lard?

    Time to go drink some orange juice. And I can’t wait until my cherry, pear and plum trees are full of ripe fruit.

  10. Grasspunk says:

    The summary you linked to of that monkey paper seems to have got it wrong. The control monkeys got pork fat, whey protein, fish meal, plant fiber and the high fructose monkeys got the vegetable oils. Here’s the table they use to describe the food:

    So if you stuff monkeys with sugar-laden pizza dough they do worse than if they get pork fat, fish meal, whey, plant fiber. How much did they spend on this?

  11. Mike says:

    What, so you mean that sweet-batter deep-fried Cadbury’s Creme Eggs and Mars Bars are actually unhealthy? But, they really help me get through my energy crashes…

  12. Slovenian Guest says:

    It gets better…

    How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat:

    “The sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead, newly released historical documents show.

    The internal sugar industry documents, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.

    “They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C.S.F. and an author of the JAMA Internal Medicine paper.

    The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.

    In 1965, Mr. Hickson enlisted the Harvard researchers to write a review that would debunk the anti-sugar studies. He paid them a total of $6,500, the equivalent of $49,000 today. Mr. Hickson selected the papers for them to review and made it clear he wanted the result to favor sugar. Harvard’s Dr. Hegsted reassured the sugar executives. “We are well aware of your particular interest,” he wrote, “and will cover this as well as we can.””

    And better:

    “Big Agra wanted to make money selling hydrogenated oils and foods, and weaken the population at the same time, and Big Pharma wanted to make money selling drugs to individuals with the resulting ailments, so they created and promoted margarine and hydrogenated vegetable oils. However, they knew that most people loved saturated fats like butter, so it would not be easy to convince people to make the switch. What they needed was some “science” and a marketable “expert” to persuade people. Enter Dr. Ancel Keys.
    The Fraudulent Dr. Ancel Keys

    Keys became famous for his “diet-lipid-heart disease hypothesis” that proposed a correlation between saturated fat (especially found in animal products) and heart disease, cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol. Consequently, in 1956 the American Heart Association (funded by Procter & Gamble, makers of the hydrogenated oil Crisco, and of which Keys was a board member) went on television to tell everyone that a diet which included large amounts of butter, lard, eggs, and beef would lead to coronary heart disease. Later Keys was put on the front page of Time magazine in 1961. This was around the beginning of the “low-fat diet”; it was later cemented by Senator McGovern in 1977 with his Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs.

    There was one big problem with all of this: Keys had selectively cherry picked the data and committed scientific fraud by deliberately leaving out data points to skew the research. He pointed to countries with low saturated fat intake and low heart disease, and countries with high saturated fat intake and high heart disease, and claimed a significant correlation. However, he omitted a very large amount of countries, almost all from Europe, that had high saturated fat intake and low heart disease.”

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